Butterfly Effect: Can Bibi Sink Bernie?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Never before has Israel's prime minister had more at stake in U.S. elections.
Bernie Sanders has a lot on his plate these days. The Vermont senator had a terrible Super Tuesday. Former Vice President Joe Biden, bolstered by the support of erstwhile presidential contenders who have now coalesced around him, has regained the status of Democratic front-runner.
But another storm is gathering pace, and it’s heading toward the progressive mascot from 6,000 miles away. On Monday, Israel held its third national elections in a year. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party won 36 seats, while the opposition Blue and White Party won 33, and Netanyahu’s broader right-wing coalition has secured 58 seats, three short of a majority. That means Bibi, as Israel’s longest-serving leader is known, could prove — at the very least — a major irritant to the electoral chances of Sanders, the only remaining Jewish candidate in the 2020 race.
Getting past that halfway mark is never easy in Israel, a rare democracy where no single party has ever won a majority. Negotiations with potential new allies could collapse, pushing the country toward a fourth election in quick succession. Alternatively, Blue and White — whose leaders are already squabbling — could crumble, allowing Likud to steal some of their legislators. There is also pressure on Blue and White to form a “unity government” with Likud to avoid another election.
But all of those outcomes have one factor in common: Netanyahu isn’t going anywhere. And I’m not talking just about Israel.
We’ve already got a taste of just how Netanyahu plans to inject himself into the 2020 presidential race. To be fair, Sanders started it, calling the Israeli prime minister a “reactionary racist” during a Democratic debate in South Carolina last week. Then on Sunday, Netanyahu addressed the influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) via satellite, hours before his country voted. He hit back — without naming Sanders — calling the comments “libelous” and “outrageous.” Next, he went a step further. “The best way to respond to that outrage is to do what you have done — by gathering in Washington today, in full force, as Democrats and Republicans … You send a great message to all those who seek to weaken our alliance, that they will fail.”
Sanders was quick to respond. “I’m Jewish and I’m very proud of my Jewish heritage … I am not anti-Israel,” he insisted to CBS News while calling for a more even-handed approach from the U.S. between Israel and the Palestinians. But the almost defensive response from the 78-year-old demonstrated his touchiness on allegations of anti-Semitism that critics have leveled against some of Sanders’ prominent supporters, including Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar.
To be sure, Netanyahu has a history of poking his nose into American politics. In 2012, a Mitt Romney campaign ad featured the Israel prime minister. Though Israel denied it had given permission to the Romney campaign to use Netanyahu’s images, Democrats were convinced Bibi was effectively endorsing the Republican candidate who unsuccessfully challenged President Barack Obama’s reelection. Then in 2015, Netanyahu addressed a Republican-led Congress, attacking the nuclear deal that the Obama White House was negotiating with Iran.
But the personal stakes are higher than ever for Netanyahu this time. He faces a court trial on allegations of corruption. While he has failed to secure parliamentary immunity against prosecution, his ability to delay the trial will depend on him staying in power.
Netanyahu fought the March 2 elections with a clear message: he would implement the controversial Middle East plan laid out by President Donald Trump, including the annexation of the Jordan Valley and of settlements in Palestinian territories that the U.N. views as illegal. It seems to have worked. His party performed better in these elections than in the previous two iterations, in April and September 2019.
The last person Netanyahu wants in the White House is Sanders — ironically, the only candidate in the race to have actually lived in Israel — who has been a staunch critic of the prime minister’s policies.
Will Netanyahu be able to meaningfully dent Sanders’ campaign? It’s hard to say. Polling shows most Americans tilt toward Israel over the Palestinians. But a 2019 Gallup Poll found that support at its lowest in a decade, and declining particularly sharply among liberal Democrats — Sanders’ core constituency.
And Biden, now the flagbearer for moderate Democrats, also shares Obama’s legacy of unease with Netanyahu, even if the antipathy isn’t close to that between Sanders and Bibi. “Israel, I think, has to stop the threats of annexation and settlement activity,” the former vice president told AIPAC over the weekend, warning that the country’s actions were hurting its support among American youth.
Netanyahu isn’t about to listen. Politically, he can’t afford to. Instead, as we’ve already seen, he’ll try to pressure the Democratic Party establishment so that they listen to him. For Sanders, that means catching up with Biden isn’t his only challenge. He’ll need to watch over his shoulder for Bibi too.